Three Reasons You’re Not Too Smart for Orthodoxy

In my experiences within both conservative and progressive Christian circles, there seems to be a kind of mutual playing in the politics of fear with regard to the other. On the conservative side, progressives are viewed as morally bankrupt libertine weaklings who lack the backbone to stand up to “the culture.” In the words of one famous conservative preacher, this is because they are a bunch of ivory tower elites who are “educated beyond their intelligence.”

But on the progressive side, the stereotyping and fear-mongering isn’t much better. There is, in fact, an assumption that conservatives are less intelligent and largely uneducated. That they don’t have access to or interest in the latest (Jesus Seminar) scholarship or philosophical trends. That they’ve never heard of – not to mention read – a gnostic gospel. And that they are thus a bunch of anti-science hayseeds whose opinions on a slew of moral issues are primitive and dangerous to society.

In my opinion, both of these extreme ideological perspectives are not only inaccurate generalizations – they are tearing the church apart by creating and perpetuating the antagonism on the other side. Instead of entering into appreciative and generous dialogue in which we try to understand each other, the church is now experiencing the same kind of unresolvable division that the American political system is experiencing. And, as it so happens, both sides in this church schism essentially mirror the sides in our national political schism.

A third way, a middle way, a new way forward is needed. And make no mistake, that will require people politicking in the extremes to make a move toward the center. Which means progressives will have to realize that we are not too smart for orthodoxy. 

In fact, as one who finds himself among progressives more often than not these days, I think if we are talking about Christianity, the church, in any historic sense (and not something else entirely), then we cannot get away from the reality and necessity of orthodoxy. Not rigid, exclusionary religious judgment, but a generous, inclusive, missional orthodoxy that is rooted in tradition, grounded in reality, and relevant to the cultural moment we inhabit.

So, without further delay, here’s my push toward the center in the form of these three reasons you’re not too smart for (a generous, inclusive, missional) orthodoxy:

1. Orthodoxy is not primarily a matter of intelligence. Another way of saying this is that it is not primarily intellectual or educational. Instead, orthodoxy – right belief – is confessional and embodied. In the progressive camp, this has been best put forward lately by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Tony Jones, both of whom argue for a communal way of confessing orthodox belief (even in the midst of doubt, and even when the community believes together but not necessarily individually) and a recognition of the powerful embodiment of orthodox faith in the church’s history and current global landscape. To simply disregard or throw away orthodoxy because it doesn’t fit well within certain academic streams and structures would potentially be to throw out the historic, global church baby with the theological/philosophical bathwater. There is simply something wonderfully different about the lived reality of the church when orthodoxy is embodied.

2. Orthodoxy is an educated perspective. While it is not primarily intellectual in nature, those who hold to orthodox convictions are often doing so out of rigorous and extensive study, scholarship, practice, reflection, and prayer. While it’s true that some Christian institutions are fundamentalist and closed off to newer scholarship and criticism, there are just as many that engage with all the theological, historical, and philosophical data and produce orthodox thinkers and practitioners. As I look at the landscape of evangelical/orthodox thought leaders like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, David Fitch, and Cherith Fee-Nordling, along with popular evangelical leaders like Brian Zahnd, Greg Boyd, Rachel Held Evans, and Jonathan Martin, and post-liberal luminaries like Stanley Hauerwas and Miroslav Volf, it is impossible to deny the intelligence – and openness – with which they approach their orthodox convictions. The work of David Fitch in particular maps out a robust, missional, ecclesial orthodoxy to emerge from the rubble of the “end of evangelicalism.”

3. Orthodoxy is rooted and unique, but doesn’t need to be rigid. What I loved most about Nadia’s recent book Pastrix was the honest account of her personal need for a unique, orthodox faith (rather than a Unitarian universality). She found that in historic Lutheranism – and she also found the potential for generosity and inclusion within her denomination. The false conservative/liberal dichotomy needs to fall precisely at this point, because orthodoxy can indeed be generous. And I would argue that a generous orthodoxy is that which has the most promise of actually being a missional and evangelistic force for the global church in our time. Only that which is uniquely Christian will have the capability of drawing people to itself, as it is that which lifts Jesus up.

This is a push to my progressive friends – and an equal and opposite push is needed for conservatives as we identify and vacate the extreme positions on the right (which this blog is often engaged in doing). Together, we might be drawn toward a generous and diverse orthodoxy – really, a Christianity – closer to the center that includes those who identify most as either conservative or progressive. Hell, it may even begin to change the definitions of these labels altogether. 

And change the game of our current, divided Christianity in the process.

What do you think? Is this kind of vision for a generous orthodoxy realistic? And do progressives need to remember that they’re not too smart for it?

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012. Twitter & Facebook.

  • Chris Attaway

    I am not clear on whether this is doable just because of the ever-changing nature of belief, especially in the light of ongoing scholarship in numerous fields. Supposing that today we centered around a new core of beliefs, what is to say that tomorrow there will not be some new revelation which makes today’s liberalism appear like tomorrow’s fundamentalism?
    The concept of orthodoxy seems to set us up for ongoing failure, at least as we now conceive of it. As long as we are just moving some marker to say what is “orthodox” and what is not, the same problems will recur with the passage of time.
    This is why I sympathize with the progressive emphasis on orthopraxy. Good belief should instill good character. With love as the center, we can be flexible enough in our beliefs yet still call out “sin” or wrongdoing based on whether or not an action is loving.
    Anyhow, perhaps you have some other concept of orthodoxy that you may feel is more flexible, and I would be interested in hearing it. I’m just afraid that a new vision of orthodoxy will not be sufficient to address the problems here.

  • Michal I

    Yes.  I think we can have that- and it will start by honestly confessing and understanding where the other side is right.  I am conservative- but I can see very well where progressives make good points on an embodied, missional, giving theology.  Moreover, its true- many conservatives lack that and need to understand theology is more than systematic.  If we are not too proud to admit such things, I think a lot of the walls will be broken down.

  • MarkADemers

    Zach. I almost agree with you.  I have to confess that I’ve not done extensive reading in the authors you mention.  Several things I find myself thinking about.  First, I agree that “orthodoxy” requires some intellectual acumen.  It’s not for the lazy of mind.  Second, to what extent is orthodoxy culturally defined and determined?  In this way, I resonate with Christ Attaway’s comment.  Third, it seems to me that any interaction with orthodoxy will require first a dramatic re-thinking of “God”.  In both the Jewish and Christian testaments, the bedrock notion of God is very specifically determined by a very particular worldview.  Jesus speaks of God within the framework of this worldview.
    I think one of the projects we all are afraid of is this one – to ask honestly how we speak of “God” in the early 21st century.

    As I’ve mentioned before, for me it is one thing to declare your orthodox beliefs; it is quite another to ask: What is the practical application?  When Jesus spoke of God as “Abba”, his reasoning seems to be more from a practical perspective than a theological one.  The theological enterprise always comes in the wake of a spiritual experience.  And here is orthodoxy’s Achille’s Heel – that once stated, it can supersede experience.  It can become a system – a kind of container that we tell people their spiritual experience has to fit into, otherwise their experience is not valid.

    Perhaps this is the reason I appreciate I Corinthians 15.  Paul synthesizes the early Christian interpretation of Hebrew texts down to this: Christ died for our sins; he was buried; on the third day he was raised and he appeared to people.  As mentioned above, this all sits atop a very particular worldview.  But as we think about an orthodoxy for our day, is it possible to be as succinct as this?

    Great post.  Thanks for sharing it.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

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  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    MarkADemers  Hey Mark, I think the development of orthodoxy is a necessity (always has been) so that it is, as I said in the post, “rooted in tradition, grounded in reality, and relevant to the cultural moment we inhabit.” However, we can’t be quick to dismiss the root – that is, if we are still the same tree. Know what i mean? In that sense we have to look very seriously at what people in the first century actually believed and practiced as “Christians” or people of “the Way.” It may be that our concept of God develops; it may be that we don’t fully appreciate or understand the concept of God at the root of our Christian story. Etc. 

    I think CS Lewis had that line about thinking something is better and more civilized or intellectual just because it is more recent? And how that is faulty (and dangerous) logic? At any rate modern realities require development to be sure, as I said to Chris Attaway, according to the discernment of the church by the leading of the Spirit. But we may also need to go back – way back, beyond the 16th century and to the 1st in order to recover the real power of our faith. In any case, we can never abandon the root (orthodoxy) lest we end up with an entirely different tree.

  • MarkADemers

    … One other thought … How would the dough of orthodoxy look and feel if seasoned with the yeast of Process Theology?

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    MarkADemers I’m down for an orthodox Process Theology more than I’m down for a Process orthodoxy, if you get my drift ;).

  • MarkADemers

    zachhoagMarkADemersChris Attaway  Agree, Zach.  And, to expand on what Lewis said regarding recent history and civilization, the same can be said for assigning too much value on what is “ancient”.  If history has taught us anything, it is that we have to be extremely careful about sugar-coating history, or reading it the way we want it to read.

  • MarkADemers

    zachhoagMarkADemersI do get your drift … just wondering if you can actually have what you are “down” for.  Seems that “process” can more easily become our orthodoxy / orthopraxy than the other way around… But I’ll think about this.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    MarkADemers zachhoag Chris Attaway right. that’s the rooted/relevant tension, i think.

  • Chris Attaway

    I agree with the sentiment that some measure of “root” as you’re calling it is necessary to avoid being culturally amorphous. Where I take issue is that the concept of orthodoxy is so terribly loaded with potential for misuse that I would want to conceive of some sort of different concept in order to develop a more robust faith in the long run, so that 50 years from now, Zach Hoag the 3rd doesn’t need to write an article on how orthodoxy needs to be more flexible (again). As it is, I can only see there being a brief period of normalcy before a big fight starts splitting people into camps again.
    The underlying problem is, I believe, epistemological in nature. It is not that conservatives are stupid and liberals are smart; it is that conservatives have a broken means of forming beliefs. In fact, many liberals have this same broken method, but they have accepted more “progressive” beliefs primarily for cultural reasons. The problem in both cases is that they believe that interpreting the Bible *just right* will lead them to proper beliefs. It is almost a priori in nature, where people have to have a book or religious resource to tell them how to interpret the world. This in turn defines orthodoxy, where these interpretations become “right belief” for a generation until they face criticism from the next.
    If we need orthodoxy, it is such that it had a new epistemology that is far more empirical in nature. If you don’t mind my suggesting, Zach, please read through my two articles, “Icons, Idols, and Holy Scripture,” and “Christian Epistemology: You’re Doing it Wrong.” I think they might be helpful in starting to rethink the concept of orthodoxy in the way which you’re hoping to do.
    http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/icons-idols-and-holy-scripture/
    http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/christian-epistemology-youre-doing-it-wrong/

  • TonyRichards1

    When I think of orthodoxy I think of the Nicene/Apostolic Creed. Is that what you are getting at?

  • Chris Attaway

    My problem, expressed in many more words in my longer comments, is that I don’t trust people to treat the root responsibly in the course of history. My aim is to try to figure out what is essentially Christian in a way that prevents or at least lowers advise in the long run. @MarkADemers, @zachhoag

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    TonyRichards1 I probably wouldn’t limit it to the creeds, but I do think they provide the most succinct trajectory for historic orthodoxy.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    Chris Attaway but should anyone trust you?

  • Chris Attaway

    So my point is not about me versus anybody else; rather, it’s about creating a safe concept that we can sustain for longer than a few generations. Obviously, we can’t control others’ actions, but I believe there are things about orthodoxy which are inherently unsafe.
    Handing down a concept of orthodoxy without placing high emphasis on safety precautions is like handling hazardous materials without protective equipment: it might be fine some or even most of the time, but something will happen, and it will be disastrous.
    With what you’re saying, I’m afraid you may be placing too much emphasis on the orthodoxy part without giving enough credit to the need for flexibility of belief. You mention it, but it feels like a subpoint rather than one of your primary goals in this project.
    Without developing the concept of flexibility into something which the church can accept and incorporate into its traditions, it is not ready to handle orthodoxy responsibly for any extended period, or at least that is my take.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    Chris Attaway Right, my point is simply that trustworthiness needs to be proven regardless & discerned by communities, institutions, etc. So your orthodoxy project & my orthodoxy project may differ, but neither are objectively more trustworthy or safe unless determined so by the community. Orthodoxy has always been a product of the community, and it has, honestly, already been flexible in that same vein. I’m arguing for a continuation of this not an abandonment of it. But my argument and others like it will stand or fall on the discernment of communities, as will yours.

    Thanks for all the engagement here :).

  • HappyHeretic

    So, here is one of my troubles with orthodoxy – even with the best of intentions it simply devolves into another human power structure used to oppress, divide, and exclude because it is in our DNA to oppress, divide and exclude.  There is no way to avoid it.  We are like alcoholics who just can’t drink.  You see it throughout church history.  As a group break away from the oppressive orthodoxy of one group, they immediately set up their own orthodoxy and begin oppressing.  I don’t see Jesus as coming to simply replace one orthodoxy (the Law) with another, but to challenge the entire concept.  Of course the human beings who made up the early church almost immediately began trying to build a new orthodoxy based on Jesus’ teachings, it’s what we do.  I find trouble with the argument that because we have always been doing it, it is necessary.  I think there are a whole slew of things that had been done from time immemorial that we have set aside.  [Sidebar: I have never considered myself too smart for orthodoxy.  I consider myself, and everyone else for that matter, too broken for it.  'Right belief' means there is 'wrong belief' which means I will spend more time trying to root out and eliminate 'wrong belief' than doing the will of the Father.  I don't think I am alone in this.  I think it is part of the sickness of humanity.]

    I would be interested in what you see as the benefits of orthodoxy.

  • TonyRichards1

    zachhoag TonyRichards1 And this brings me back to the Chesterton reference I made on Twitter.  I’ll try to tie my thoughts together as best I can.  I associate orthodoxy with dogma.  For example we develop simple easy to remember ‘essentials’ for people who aren’t willing or able to read/digest their Bibles every day.  Jesus didn’t seem to teach that our salvation was based on our ability to fully comprehend the depths of our faith or our ability to argue/defend them.  And, I think Paul’s comment in Romans to ‘believe in our heart Jesus rose from the dead and confess with our mouths’ is an example of early dogma.  It may have been Paul’s view that generally people didn’t necessarily NEED more than that in their religious view.  I also think Chesterton felt the same way and that’s why he defended the use of dogma.  He probably would have also found some other group that attacked religious dogma and pointed out their own use of dogma as a sort of ‘what’s good for the goose isn’t what’s good for the gander’.
    Does that make sense? 
    I’m not sure if that’s where you were going in your discussion about orthodoxy but it helps me ‘map out the landscape’ of the current schism amongst different Christian groups.

  • HappyHeretic

    Strange to reply to myself, but just read this in Nadia’s most recent sermon/blog post – kind of sums up how I think about it:

    When this church was first getting going we were deciding what to put on our website.   We realized that most church have a “What we believe” tab at the top.  We toyed with having a what we believe tab but when you click on it it was just the Nicene Creed but it ends up that I was the only one who liked that idea. Finally Mark said why don’t we just have it say “if you want to know what we believe, come and see what we do” [emphasis added]

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    HappyHeretic I like what Nadia is getting at there and agree completely. I just don’t think that cancels out orthodoxy. Know what I mean? “They’ll know you by your love” doesn’t cancel out “believe also in me” – rather the embodiment proves the confession. Etc.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    HappyHeretic I actually agree that some manner of orthodoxy is inevitable if we are trying to be something (Christian) and not something else (not-Christian). That said, I don’t think that necessarily equals oppression. It will always equal brokenness because the church, out of which orthodoxy comes, is a broken yet beautiful human thing. But it will be necessary, and as long as it is meaningfully Christian, it will be tied to the historic Christ-event and the early Christian expressions.

  • HappyHeretic

    zachhoagHappyHeretic What form would this orthodoxy take?  On what basis would you determine who is a Christian and who isn’t?  Surely it can’t be the creeds.  If I reject the concept of the virgin birth does that mean I am not a Christian?

    Jesus also said he who does the will of my Father is my brother…


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